Sunday, September 19, 2010

Women in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

1. The Wife of Bath
There is a good deal of wisdom in the school-boy's prayer that God would make the bad people good, and the good people interesting ; and we often find those of light character more entertaining than the respectable and worthy. We are probably wrong in finding Falstaff (In Shakespeare's Henry IV) an amusing character. No doubt we ought to frown at his many and obvious failings.
But he continues to delight us, inspite of them. And in the same way we find much amusement in the much-married Wife of Bath. She had enjoyed happiness with five husbands, not to mention other companions of her youth, and she was quite prepared for a sixth. This was not her first experience of a pilgrimage. She had been three times to Jerusalem and had ridden past many strange streams, had been to the shrine of St. James of Compostella, in Galicia, and to Tome, Bologna, and Cologne. We seem to see a real portrait in this bold-faced woman, with bright ruddy complexion, wide gaps between her teeth, a heavy well-dyed Sunday kerchief, a big wimple, and a hat as broad as a shield, her new well-spurred shoes, and her straight-tied hose. She claimed precedence when she went to church, and was very peevish if any wife in the parish tried to get in front of her. A commentator writes:
She is not really a character at all, she is a whole literature ...all the sarcasms against women and marriage which the wit of man has accumulated through the ages. Is such a pest, such a combination of conjugal despotism, sensuality, garrulity and peevishness, possible?
An answer to this comment is found in Trevor's observations about the Wife of Bath. He says 'She is more than merely an aggressive, uninhibited, vulgar woman dominating the particular men fortunate or unfortunate enough to have been married by her. She is also a matriarchal figure who has declared war on mankind. She embodies the eternal female in revolt against a male-ordered and male-centred civilization. 'The point is that the Wife of Bath is in revolt against the medieval sexual ideals and attitudes. In the time of Chaucer, an absolute ban was placed on all forms of sexual activity other than intercourse between married persons, carried out with the object of procreating. The sexual act, even in marriage, was held to be accompanied by lust and sin unless performed solely for the object of procreating. Because of this belief all sorts of prohibitions were placed upon the sexual act even within marriage.
The position of women in Chaucer's days was also an unenviable one. Dr. Jacques Leclercq writes in Marriage and the Family:
The sexual obsessions of the Church bore with special hardness on women. By the Saxons she had been treated as property; now she was treated as the source of all sexual evil as well. Chrysostom, less vindictive than some, spoke of women as a 'necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic peril, a deadly fascination, and a painted ill'.
But by the Middle Ages even these qualifications were no longer acceptable. 'A Good Woman (as an old Philosopher observeth) is but like one Ele put in a bagge amongst 500 snakes, and if a man should have the luck to grope out that one Ele from all the snakes, yet he hath at best a wet Ele by the Taile.' It was argued that sexual guilt really pertained to women, since they tempted men, who would otherwise have remained pure. By the Middle Ages married women ceased even to have a legal existence. Though unmarried women had certain legal rights, and could dispose of their own property on reaching their majority, married women were mere shadows of their husbands. Again, the common law enjoined husbands to treat their wives mercifully, but the civil law said that he couid 'beat her violently with whips and sticks'. It was permissible to thrash a woman with a cudgel but not to knock her down with an iron bar.
The Wife of Bath is undoubtedly a representative of women's rights as a respectable citizen and free human being. She laments the fact that the Church should regard love as sin. She therefore satirises (and Chaucer is by all means with her) the sex-obsessed and guilt-ridden attitudes of medievel Christianity. At all times the male attitude towards woman involves a certain amount of distrust : the male suspects her of undermining and betraying his manhood. But the sexual repressions of medieval Christianity pushed this fear to insane and absurd lengths.
Trevor rightly observes that the Wife of Bath is essentially a secular figure. Without shame she confesses that God's commands are for those that would live perfectly, and she has never aspired to do. She says in the Prologue to her Tale:
I wol bistowe the flour of al myn age
In the actes and in fruyt of marriage.
Here is a rejection of transcendental religion. She is the self as opposed to the soul. She sometimes aspires to speak piously but the effect is usually a parody of false clerical arguments, or else a revelation of the blasphemy that often lies in common piousness. Yet she is not really an anti-religious or amoral figure. Her sexual prodigality is in a curious way profoundly religious. In its bawdy exuberance it is an expression of life, and of gratitude to God who made her. To quote again from her Prologue:
In wyfhod I wol use myn instrument
As frely as my Makere hath it sent.
From Chaucer's point of view, it may be made clear, that the Wife of Bath is a vehicle for satirising male attitudes as well as female attitudes. From the male angle, the Wife of Bath is a grote­sque exemplar of most of the female vices : nagging, scolding, deceiving, grumbling, spending, gossiping, lying and betraying. She is vain, egotistic, hypocritical, possessive and licentious. Her prime fault, however, is that she wishes to assert female domination over the male. 'Sovereignty' means breaking the male will, and possessing him completely. This aspect of the Wife of Bath is comically terrifying. Here is the ugliness that co-exists with her 'beauty', making her such a complex figure. She is a terrible, matriarchal goddess, demanding complete subservience to herself. Law, order, discipline are cast over.
2. The Prioress
To understand the Prioress we should know something about nuns in general in the Middle Ages. It is true that nuns sometimes appear in the fabliaux and are shown in those coarse narrative to be wanton ; however, in serious literature, whether historical or fictional, the nun is depicted as worthy of respect and praise. She may have her human faults, but in her capacity as a religious woman she acts with decorum.
In actual life, nuns were nearly always of gentle birth for a reason that was largely economic. Nearly every woman of the Middle Ages had her social "place”, fixed from birth. If she belonged to the peasant or artisan class, she had little chance to remain single : her labour was her valuable dowry, and neither father nor guardian of any sort would be likely to withstand the pressure of a suitor. Indeed, a healthy girl of that social standing was a commodity, and although she might have some choice which man she wedded, the choice ended there, for her destiny was to be a married woman, not a nun. Upper-class women were in a different situation ; they could not 'labour', so their dowries could be only in money, or in the power of family connection. If a girl were the daughter of a rich or influential house, she would be married out of hand at an early age, sometimes even by proxy in her cradle. Marriage was a business through which a man furthered his finances or his opportunities or advancement. If she came from an impoverished family...and many knights were from wealthy...the lady, if she wished to survive at all, became a nun. Today we are accustomed to think that the religious life is only for those who have a vocation, and we may wonder/about those medieval ladies who entered convents simply because there was literally nothing else for them to do in the hard, non-fairytale world of practical matters. Were they "good" nuns? Were they happy? For the overwhelming majority, the answer must be "yes" to both questions. As a young girl, the lady herself had probably been schooled by gentle nuns who had taught her all the polite accomplishments, as well as the practical arts belonging to her station. In fact, the life of the school girl in the convent was often more exciting and could be far more opulent than in her own home. Further, the nuns being medieval women, regard in the tradition of the medieval Church, would inculcate the Church's tenet that the virginal life was the ''best," the one most surely to be rewarded everlastingly in the life to come. Existence, then, within the convent's walls was busy, and it was peaceful, pleasant and dignified. One did not starve there or lack shelter, one was surrounded by one's social peers, and spiritually one was upheld by the supreme knowledge that one was a bride of Christ.
With all those facts in mind, we are sure that Chuacer created his Prioress straight from his own world. True to type, she is essentially well-bred. But, paradoxically, that very fact also individualises her for us as Madame Eglantine : her apparent memory of and sustained interest in her early life of refinement has led her to indulge in particular foibles and vanities which are distinctly hers, and yet which certainly belonged, either wholly or in part, to many nuns of Chaucer's time. Madame Eglantine should not "swear" at all, yet she swears by St. Eligius ("Seinte Loy"), that seventh-century courtier-turned-saint, beloved by many ladies of the nobility and gentry throughout later centuries. Madame Eglantine is depicted as having exaggeratedly good table manners (the poet draws largely here upon a very "worldly" passage from the Roman de la Rose) for, as Chaucer says, she always takes pains to imitate manners of court life. Madame Eglantine speaks fluent French, and although it is not the "Frenssh of Parys", it is still French and hence aristocratic. Madame Eglantine is not always, careful about obeying the injunctions of the bishop who inspects her convent: nuns were forbidden to go on pilgrimage by fourteenth-century bishops, yet they frequently did so and here is our Prioress, albeit she is properly accompanied by another nun and a priest.
Nuns were also forbidden to keep pets of any kind (the money and attention given to those animals should be given instead to the poor), yet Madame Eglantine possesses little dogs upon whom she lavishes affection and care—she even feeds them meat and expensive white bread. Further, the Prioress is personally vain : her appearance is important to her, for she displays too much of handsome broad forehead to the world and she cannot hide her love of jewellry—her rosary is too elaborate for a nun and the brooch she possesses "of gold ful sheene", bearing its ambitcous motto (does amor mean sacred or profane love?), should not be worn by any one who has taken a vow of poverty. The Prioress again shows her fondness for precious stones in her Tale: in praising the Virgin, she says, "This gemme of chastite, this emeraude.' And eek of martirdom the ruby bright...".
But even though Chaucer does censure Madame Eglantine for her vanities and for her disregard of the bishop's injunctions, the blame is extremely mild. The poet makes the lady charming, but sometimes her graceful feminity is too strong for the strictly religious.
Speirs feels that Chaucer has drawn the Prioress with a gradually evolved ambiguity which culminates in the final expression of Amor Vincit Omnia. According to him Amor might be expected in the case of a prioress to mean only one thing, Amor Dei. But this Prioress just sufficiently a lady of the world, and a sentimentalist, for a doubt to exist as to whether it is the divine love, or the profane courtly love sentiment is intended. That doubt, if it exists (and in the context it surely does exist, has to be taken into account as an aspect of the character. The irony is in this ambiguity within the character itself; and also as the character is seen, with its slight affectation, in relation to the spring season and to nature.
Trevor remarks: Doubtless there is a touch of worldly vanity disguising itself behind a religious motto. But is there not a further significance which generates a more profound irony? Behind the nun who plays as being a courtly lady is there not a country girl with a naive and loving heart? Even her name, Eglentyne, symbolises the ambiguity of her character: a rose which is the emblem of courtly love, but it is also a wild rose that invokes purity and rural innocence. At any rate, when she comes to tell her tale the simple country girl speaks and not merely the affected lady or dignified prioress. And the tale she tells turns out to be one of the most genuinely religious of all the tales.
B.M. Smith observes that Chaucer is not at his happiest when depicting women. The observation may be partly true. But the two portraits that we have in the Prologue are done with deep understanding and sympathy. In fact, Chaucer had in his mind the overall social attitude towards women when he portrayed The Wife of Bath and the Prioress. He is no doubt ironical about both but his irony is mild and in the case of the Wife of Bath he himself is with her in satirising the conventional attitudes towards sex and marriage. The true impact which Chaucer should make on our minds in this respect is that he glances critically at the institution which prevented women like the Prioress and the Wife of Bath from living a full life.

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